While the law provides for freedom of speech and press and specifically prohibits press censorship, the government often did not respect these rights. The government limited freedom of speech and media independence. Journalists faced intimidation and at times were beaten and imprisoned. NGOs considered at least 13 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. On June 13, the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs reported that the chair of the Baku-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), Emin Huseynov, left the country on June 12 on the plane of Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter. Huseynov went into hiding after authorities detained three other prominent human rights advocates in 2014 and spent 10 months at the Swiss Embassy in Baku while Swiss and Azerbaijani authorities negotiated the terms of his departure from the country. During the summer, authorities expanded pressure on the media to journalists in exile and their relatives.
Freedom of Speech and Expression: The constitution provides for freedom of speech, but government repression continued regarding subjects considered politically sensitive. On April 16, the Council of Europe commissioner for human rights stated, “There is a clear pattern of repression in Azerbaijan against those expressing dissent or criticism of authorities. This concerns primarily human rights defenders, but also journalists, blogger and other activists, who may face a variety of criminal charges which defy credibility. Such charges are largely seen as an attempt to silence the persons concerned and are closely linked to the legitimate exercise by them of their right to freedom of expression.”
The incarceration of persons who attempted to exercise freedom of speech raised concerns about authorities’ use of the judicial system to punish dissent. In addition the government attempted to impede criticism by monitoring political and civil society meetings.
Press and Media Freedoms: A number of opposition and independent print and online media outlets expressed a wide variety of views on government policies. Newspaper circulation rates remained low, not surpassing 5,000 in most cases. Beginning in 2014, however, the government blocked the sale of newspapers in the metro and on the street, limiting sales to government approved kiosks. Credible reports indicated that opposition newspapers were available outside Baku only in limited numbers due to the refusal of a number of distributors to carry them.
Foreign broadcasters, including Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and the BBC, remained prohibited from broadcasting on FM radio frequencies, although the Russian service Sputnik was allowed to broadcast news on a local radio network. On September 21, a Presidential Administration official publicly accused international media of “operating illegally” because they filed stories from the country, and in this connection criticized Berlin-based online Meydan TV and Voice of America by name. RFE/RL’s Baku office remained closed following closure of the office by authorities in December 2014.
Local NGOs considered at least 13 journalists and bloggers to be political prisoners or detainees as of year’s end. For example, Zerkalo journalist Rauf Mirkadirov remained in detention during the year. His trial--closed to the public--began November 4 and continued at year’s end. Mirkadirov’s arrest and pretrial detention followed his deportation from Turkey in April 2014. Authorities accused Mirkadirov of espionage and treason while involved in activities promoting the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (also see section 1.e.).
In another case independent Bizim Yol journalist, editor of independent news website Moderator, and human rights NGO head Parviz Hashimli received a court sentence on May 15 of eight years in prison for alleged weapons smuggling. Both media outlets were known for coverage of corruption and human rights abuses.
On September 1, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes convicted independent journalist Khadija Ismayilova, well known for her reporting on corruption and for her human rights advocacy, for alleged crimes considered by observers to be politically motivated (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). Amnesty International considered Ismayilova a prisoner of conscience, and a number of governments, international journalists, and human rights organizations called for her release.
Authorities also exerted intense pressure on the country’s leading media rights advocates and organizations. Internationally renowned media freedom advocate Emin Huseynov, the chair of the IRFS, left the country after 10 months in the Swiss Embassy following the detentions of three other prominent human rights advocates. Government harassment of the IRFS employees continued. For example, on January 26, an unknown assailant attacked lawyer and IRFS deputy chairman Gunay Ismayilova. Police opened an investigation but had yet to report any findings by year’s end.
During the year authorities extended pressure to independent media outlets outside the country and those associated with them in the country. For example, online Berlin-based Meydan TV founder and former prisoner of conscience Emin Milli reported a death threat from the government conveyed through an intermediary. Officials reportedly detained and questioned a number of freelance journalists about their relationship to Meydan TV. On September 18, authorities reportedly imprisoned one such journalist for 30 days. Such pressure also included the arrest of relatives of journalists in exile, including Emin Milli’s brother-in-law and Ganimat Zahidov’s nephew.
Violence and Harassment: Local observers reported 64 physical assaults on journalists during 2014. The attacks mainly targeted journalists from Radio Liberty, Azadliq and other newspapers, and Obyektiv Television.
This trend continued during the year. For example, on August 8, a group of assailants beat photojournalist and IRFS chairman Rasim Aliyev and inflicted injuries that led to his death August 9. Before his death Aliyev informed media representatives that he linked his beating to a critical comment he placed on Facebook about soccer player Javid Huseynov and Huseynov’s behavior during a Union of European Football Associations Europe League match in Cyprus on July 30. Aliyev also stated that Huseynov’s cousin had called and invited him to discuss the critical comment. Aliyev reported that when he arrived at the prearranged location for the meeting, he was struck from behind and beaten by six men who took his wallet and telephone before leaving the area. Officials launched a criminal case, detaining the alleged assailants and Huseynov. IRFS attributed Aliyev’s death in the hospital to intentional negligence.
There were no indications authorities held police officers accountable for physical assaults on journalists in prior years.
Journalists and media rights leaders continued to call for an investigation into the 2011 killing of journalist Rafiq Tagi, against whom Iranian cleric Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani issued a fatwa, and into the 2005 killing of independent editor and journalist Elmar Huseynov.
Lawsuits suspected of being politically motivated were also used to intimidate journalists and media outlets. During 2014, 59 court cases reportedly were initiated against journalists or media outlets, with plaintiffs demanding 2.5 million manat ($1.54 million) in compensation; courts ultimately imposed 180,000 manat ($111,000) in fines.
The majority of independent and opposition newspapers remained in a precarious financial situation having problems paying wages, taxes, and periodic court fines. Most relied on political parties, influential sponsors, or the State Media Fund for financing.
The government prohibited some state libraries from subscribing to opposition and independent newspapers, prevented state businesses from buying advertising in opposition newspapers, and pressured private businesses not to advertise in them. As a result paid advertising was largely absent in opposition media. Political commentators noted these practices reduced the wages opposition and independent outlets could pay to their journalists, which allowed progovernment outlets to hire away quality staff. In addition international media monitoring reports indicated intimidation by Ministry of Taxes authorities further limited the independence of the media.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Most media practiced self-censorship and avoided topics considered politically sensitive due to fear of government retaliation.
The National Television and Radio Council required that local, privately owned television and radio stations not rebroadcast complete news programs of foreign origin.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense and covers written and verbal statements. The law provides for large fines and up to three years’ imprisonment for persons convicted of libel. Conviction of defamation is punishable by fines ranging from 100 to 1,000 manat ($61.70 to $617) and imprisonment for six months to three years.
The government generally did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, but it required internet service providers to be licensed and have formal agreements with the Ministry of Communications and High Technologies. According to International Telecommunication Union statistics, approximately 61 percent of the country’s population used the internet in 2014.
The law imposes criminal penalties for conviction of libel and insult on the internet.
There were strong indications that the government monitored the internet communications of democracy activists. For example, many youth activists who were questioned, detained or jailed frequently had posted criticism of alleged government corruption and human rights abuses online. On May 6, the Baku Court of Grave Crimes sentenced social media and opposition Musavat Party activist Faraj Karimov to six-and-a-half years in prison. Karimov administered two popular Facebook pages--Istefa and BASTA-- that were critical of human rights violations, social problems, and corruption: Istefa, which called on authorities to resign, had more than 300,000 subscribers prior to being shut down in 2013, and BASTA, associated with the word “enough” in both Spanish and Azerbaijani, had almost 155,000 subscribers at the time of his arrest. The Freedom House annual Freedom on the Net report covering June 2014 through May 2015, stated that, while the government did not extensively block online content, “arrests and intimidation tactics used against netizens (citizens of the net) and their families over the last few years have threatened online activism.”
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government on occasion restricted academic freedom.
Some domestic observers continued to raise concerns that the government’s selection of participants for state-sponsored study abroad programs was biased and considered political affiliation. The government denied the allegation and stated its selection process was transparent.
Opposition party members continued to report difficulties finding jobs teaching at schools and universities. Authorities fired most known opposition party members teaching in state educational institutions in previous years. NGOs reported local executive authorities occasionally prevented the expression of minority cultures, for example, by prohibiting cultural events at local community centers and the teaching of local dialects.